The Joy Formidable


Arriving at the underground venue of The Cockpit in Leeds, (it quite literally is underneath a bridge), I find myself not entirely sure of what to expect from my imminent interview with Welsh alt-rockers The Joy Formidable. Despite being active for a mere six years, with their high-powered, thunderous brand of rock, the band has rapidly gained a reputation that is indeed, formidable. Their first full-length studio album in 2011, The Big Roar, was met with impressive critical acclaim for its raw and visceral style, and their latest album, Wolf’s Law, sees the band retain this fundamental musical aggression, while placing a greater emphasis on more ‘polished’ textures and sounds.

On the origins of the band’s unusual name, Rhydian said: “It comes from gut instinct, it doesn’t need to make literal sense. We’re fans of language, it could have been a song lyric.” He describes that the name thematically suggests the push-and-pull between dark and light, and he emphasis that “It is certainly not to do with joy! We’re not always happy- [the name is] hopeful but recognizes darker times.”

Continuing with the theme of naming, I ask what the influence behind the new album Wolf’s Law is, and what the significance of the album’s name is, to which he replies: “It’s a scientific term – how bone adapts to stress that you put on it. It’s a fitting motif, really.” He suggests that the album focuses on rediscovering the self, and reconnecting spiritually. He adds: “The Big Roar was a turbulent time for us. Ritzy’s parents were going through a massive, long, drawn-out divorce and we were on top of each other in a tiny studio. [The new album] is about the need to not waste time.”

We moved on to the subject of the album’s artwork, which is very striking, depicting a dead wolf lying on a sandbar with a conflagration of vibrant flowers bursting forth from its corpse. It is a genuinely beautiful piece of artwork, and the image powerfully expresses the themes about which Rhydian talks. He describes how the artwork is actually a genuine painting by New York artist Martin Whitfoorth, remarking: “We came across [Whitfoorth] in New York, and fell in love with his paintings. We always do our own album artwork; it has to speak on some level of the music.” The band and Whitfoorth collaborated in his art studio in Brooklyn, and he describes the teaming as “a great collaboration, no egos, no bullshit.” After its completion, Rhydian tells me that the artwork was actually later displayed at an exhibit called Empire in Los Angeles, and that the band felt that they had to buy the piece- “it felt wrong not too.”

As I have said, the band experiences a great amount of critical acclaim with the release of their debut EP A Balloon Called Moaning and especially The Big Roar, and I ask Rhydian if the band was expecting this level of acclaim, and how they reacted to it. However, he dismisses the critics, telling me: “You’ve got to switch off to criticism. Music is really subjective, and ultimately you have to believe in what you’re doing. We’re very proud of everything we’ve done; nothing is half-hearted.”

Also remarkable is that, as relative newcomers to the arena of popular music, The Joy Formidable have supported a number of major bands, most recently Muse on their 2nd Law tour in October and November of last year. I ask Rhydian how it feels to be supporting a band of Muse’s calibre, and how it feels to be playing to huge stadium crowds. He replied: “We’re used to it. We’ve toured with Manic Street Preachers, Foo Fighters, Paul McCartney, so we’re used to bigger stages. It doesn’t matter what size crowd you play to – you have the same connection with the audience, whether playing to 10 or 10,000.”

Having travelled so far from their first performance at the ‘BBC Introduces’ stage at Reading Festival in 2008, I enquire as to where Rhydian sees the band going now, after Wolf’s Law. “You’re always standing behind what you write, we’re always looking forward, to the next chapter in life. We don’t want to repeat a formula, it always should be different.” He lets slip that the band are working on a Welsh language EP, Rhydian’s first language and Ritzy’s second. They also have plans in the pipeline to score a film and maybe even some dance projects. He added: “We haven’t been to Australia yet, and many places in the East; we’d love to perform there.”

On their biggest musical influences, Rhydian is surprisingly indifferent, suggesting that rather than having any direct influences upon their music, each band member has grown up with different tastes which has, musically speaking, shaped who they are. “All three of us have totally different tastes. Matt [our drummer] is a massive Zapper fan, and he’s really into experimental jazz. I grew up with Hendrix, Zeppelin, you know; Ritzy grew up with the ‘great’ songwriters like Springsteen, Cohen, Bob Dylan.”

Taking a mildly less sycophantic route, I suggest that some critics have suggested that the songs on Wolf’s Law are a lot more ‘polished’ than those of The Big Roar, and are not always positive about this, suggesting that the music has lost some its characterising rawness. Rhydian dismisses this as Wolf’s Law being “a more focused album. There is no wrong or right way with music. It is turbulent, claustrophobic and aggressive in parts, the aggression is still present. We achieved exactly what we wanted to achieve with the album. I don’t see what ‘polished’ even means- it’s all to do with sound.” He emphasises his earlier point of having to tune out criticism, as all music is subjective-, commenting: “there’s no such thing as good music or bad music.” Thus, whether the album can be described as ‘polished’ is irrelevant, but Wolf’s Law is undeniably more explorative in its musical scope. On what prompted this change, Rhydian says it was “a natural progression. We used an orchestra on The Big Roar, and [in Wolf’s Law] we toyed with harpists and piano pieces. It evolved naturally and we didn’t force it.”

Perhaps what The Joy Formidable is best known, and praised, for is their high-energy live show. I ask Rhydian if, as a band, their music perhaps lends itself better to live performances than it does to studio recording. “I see them as different disciplines”, he explains, “there a different aspects to each one. When people see a band live, they don’t want a replication of a CD; we celebrate this difference.” He insists that live performances have to be “intense in some way- we don’t like bands that just ‘go through the motions’ when they perform. I guess it’s a bit of a punk ethic, really- to get the audience going as much as you.”

With the interview at an end, I bid my farewell and leave the venue. I am struck by Rhydian’s earnestness- he’s aware that negative criticism exists about his band, but to him this holds no currency at all, and neither does positive. His attitudes are as uncompromising as the music of The Joy Formidable, and they are out to please nobody but themselves. But, if people like them anyway, well that’s simply an added bonus.